Three Thousand Years of Longing

Year: 2022
Production Co: Kennedy Miller Mitchell
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: George Miller
Producer: George Miller/Doug Mitchell
Writer: George Miller, A S Byatt, Augusta Gore
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Lachy Hulme, Megan Gale

A couple of years ago a lot of cinephiles (including me) were all lamenting how few stories that weren't from a hit pre-existing IP were finding their way to movie screens, and that this kind of thing only had a home on streaming services.

But as cinemas have come back in the post-pandemic era all I can think is that Marvel, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc have all hit pause long enough for desperate studios and executives to greenlight stuff like this just to keep content coming through the pipelines.

It feels like just a handful of years ago an original story about an Arabic mythological figure falling in love with a human while he tells her about his adventures wouldn't have been made at all, let alone be a mainstream release in your local suburban multiplex.

Tilda Swinton is Alithea, a British academic with a speciality in ancient mythology who goes to Istanbul to talk at a conference and enjoy the creative company of her colleagues. While there, she sees a glowing, mystical figure looking at her from the audience with an angry look on its face. Alithea tries to ignore it, figuring it's an overactive imagination, but the figure launches itself at her and she blacks out, waking up later to find she's fainted in the middle of her oratory.

Sent to her hotel room to rest, she rubs a small ornate bottle she's already bought from a streetside vendor, and a djinn (Idris Elba) is released in her suite, the first really extraordinary visuals depicting a giant being laying down in the other room, cramped and otherworldly with his pointed ears and smooth black skin.

Gradually he comes back to human size and the pair start to talk, the djinn offering Alithea three wishes. An experienced literary scholar, Alithea wants to reject the offer, knowing full well the cautionary tales from the history of storytelling about the disaster that ensues when the protagonists of those stories get what they think they wanted.

While she thinks about it, the djinn tells Alithea three stories that led to him being locked in the bottle for so long, stretching from the ancient to the modern Islamic worlds.

I could relate the plot of the anthology-like pieces here but you can look them up just as easily if you're interested enough. None of them had a real lot of weight apart from some sumptuous visual design, and that's honestly the problem with the whole film. It scores points for being something you've never seen before and going places you can't guess just because it's so different, but there's just a lot of narrative imbalance.

Is the wraparound device of the djinn and the human woman the point, the three tales just moral-of-the-story type tales to help her decide? Is the film just casting he and her as carnival hucksters, enticing you into the three stories that are actually supposed to matter more? I found myself not caring terribly about either one, and the ending of Alithea returning home to Britain, arguing with her bigoted elderly neighbours and the future of the djinn only having the strength to visit her periodically in human form felt tacked on and pretty meaningless.

If you need something familiar to hang it all on it seems to be a contemporary retelling of the Aladdin and some other of the 1001 Nights myths because of the three wishes motif, but there's only a backbone of that. I can't help thinking director George Miller (in between Mad Max: Fury Road movies) might have had a more success both creatively and financially if he'd leaned a little more into what Western audiences know and like about the storytelling movements the golden age of Islam gave us.

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